Are The Saudis Getting Their Nukes?

Citing unnamed senior administration officials, the Times of London is reporting that Saudi Arabia has in fact followed up on its threats and made the “strategic decision” to get nukes from Pakistan, whose nuclear program Riyadh has paid for through the years. Some highlights:

“For the Saudis the moment has come,” a former American defence official said last week.

“There has been a longstanding agreement in place with the Pakistanis and the House of Saud has now made the strategic decision to move forward.”

While the official did not believe “any actual weaponry has been transferred yet”, it was clear “the Saudis mean what they say and they will do what they say”, following last month’s Iranian outline nuclear deal. His assessment was echoed by a US intelligence official who said “hundreds of people at Langley”, the CIA’s headquarters, were working to establish whether or not Pakistan had already supplied nuclear technology or even weaponry to Saudi Arabia.

“We know this stuff is available to them off the shelf,” the intelligence official said. Asked whether the Saudis had decided to become a nuclear power, the official responded: “That has to be the assumption.”

If this story is just based on intelligence community assessments, there might not be that much actual ‘news’ here. But it does belie President Obama’s assurances in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg that Saudi Arabia in fact does not intend to go down this road:

Part of the reason why they would not pursue their own nuclear program—assuming that we have been successful in preventing Iran from continuing down the path of obtaining a nuclear weapon—is that the protection that we provide as their partner is a far greater deterrent than they could ever hope to achieve by developing their own nuclear stockpile or trying to achieve breakout capacity when it comes to nuclear weapons.

Maybe. Or maybe not. Recent reports have indicated that King Salman has thoroughly lost confidence in America as a reliable partner. The Guardian, in its excellent piece from the weekend which detailed how the Saudis had taken matters into their own hands over Syria, had this nugget in it:

King Salman, who was formerly defence minister, is known to have railed against Barack Obama’s equivocation on Syria, especially his decision not to bomb Damascus in August 2013, after a sarin gas attack blamed on the Syrian regime. “That was the moment when we realised that our most powerful friend was no longer reliable,” the official said. “We had to step out from behind the curtain.”

In any case, the incentives are there for the Saudis to loudly talk up this option right up until the deadline for the Iranian nuke talks in hopes of nudging Tehran to walk away. What happens after July 1 if the accords are signed is anyone’s guess. But we are not necessarily convinced that the Saudis are just bluffing.

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